John and I have decided that life is more pleasant when one is surrounded by growing things. Actually, this may have been something that I decided and that John went along with, but he has gone along with it. Given that children are an insane commitment, that our apartment is too small for dogs, and that our cats would probably eat anything smaller than a dog (including other cats), we decided to go with an herb garden. Aside from having an unusually useful waste product, being silent, and generally not making much of a fuss, herb gardens don’t present the same moral quandary that other growing things do. In polite Western society, it is generally considered bad form to eat parts of children, dogs, or other pets and allow what’s left of them to die when winter comes. With herb gardens, however, this behavior is considered to be fairly normal.
The trouble with herb gardens is that herbs typically hail from much warmer, drier, sunnier places than our little balcony. Some New England balconies can provide a reasonable approximation of an ideal climate during the peak of summer, but our balcony faces squarely north. For those of you who, like me, have little idea of how compass direction relates to interior exposure to sunlight, that means that our balcony is almost entirely in the shade all summer long. This situation is less than ideal for sun-loving plants like herbs, so John and I had to get a bit creative in our choice of seeds.
This is what we came up with.
Box #1: Edible Flowers
Alpine (aka mignonette) strawberries are just a variety of strawberry. Supposedly their smaller fruit is more likely to survive in the shade. Does this mean they’ll actually grow from seed with very little sun? I have no idea, but given that they are also known as “woodland” strawberries, implying that they grow under cover of trees, I have high hopes.
Violas, I think, are useful almost entirely for their looks and the edibility of their flowers. I’ve always been a little wary of edible flowers, since a substitute teacher in high school made me aware of the phenomenon by snagging a few petals for her salad from a floral arrangement someone had delivered to the library, but supposedly they can also be candied and/or added to cakes. Herbs + cakes = worth a try. Also, they are pretty and share a name with a very pleasant string instrument. What’s not to love?
Borage I am less sure about. I had never heard about it before and have no idea what to expect. Every single blog I found with information about shade-loving herbs suggested that borage would do well. It supposedly has a fruit that tastes a bit like cucumber, and the flowers can also be eaten. Interesting factoid: borage flowers are one of the few truly blue natural foods. Looking at the pictures online, I think they are exactly the flower I had wished to find for my wedding cake a few years back – another dubious point in their favor.
Box #2: Savory Herbs
Okay, you caught me. Basil is not technically a plant that any garden-advice column I have come across recommends for growing in the shade. Basil, however, is the one herb that I would walk on my knees across a hot parking lot to enjoy fresh. Growing it in our available conditions will most likely be a completely disaster, but when we utterly failed to find the more hardy broadleaf thyme (aka Cuban oregano), we decided it couldn’t hurt to try. We really, really love basil.
Chives are a good, respectable classic. Who doesn’t love a few fresh chives on their salad? Plus, they have pretty flowers. Add in the fact that they can supposedly weather a bit of sun deprivation? Sold!
Tarragon… I actually don’t think I like tarragon. I wouldn’t quote me on that, though, because it isn’t one of those things that pops up in cuisine often enough to stick in my taste memory. Russian tarragon is supposedly a pretty hearty plant and easy to grow–hopefully that’s what we managed to buy. Best of all, if you’re brushing up on your spells and potions, tarragon goes by the fun synonym “dragon’s wort.”
Pots #1 & 2: Mint Family
Mint is, of all the plants we researched, the one that would probably be voted “most likely to thrive in the shade.” I think we’ll be enjoying a great deal of tea, infused water, and tabbouleh this summer. I don’t know what else to do with mint. Suggestions, anyone? I think we’ll have a fair amount to dry, come autumn. I am slightly nervous about the drying process. My boss at one of my previous jobs joked about her concern that the cops would arrest her for the huge amounts of mint spread across her porch–apparently it looks suspiciously similar to marijuana.
Last, but definitely not least, is the cousin to mint whose Latin name I am most excited about: Melissa officinalis. More commonly known as lemon balm, this plant is also supposed to grow very easily in the shade. I also don’t quite know what to do with it come fall, but I’m excited about the prospect of eating a plant that shares my name. (Sheesh–who knew herb gardening would provide so many opportunities for inappropriate jokes about cannibalism?)
I have visions of this humble bit of balcony transforming into a lush, sweet-smelling haven once the greens start poking their heads above the soil. It might happen, it might not. At least the plants are unlikely to develop behavioral issues and if they do, we can always eat them.